I had no idea where I was. Totally alone on a bus somewhere in the south of Spain, headed toward the city of Granada. It was supposed to be an eight-hour bus ride, but it turned into fourteen. The old Spanish woman next to me kept trying to cuddle with my shoulder in her fit of exhaustion. I didn’t do anything about it. It was three o’clock in the morning and I was sure I had missed my stop. I had no means of communication. My only emotion was panic, a want to turn back.
This is the beginning of my head-first dive into traveling by way of organic farming, more commonly referred to as WWOOFing amongst a large population of liberal arts college students. WWOOFing earned its name from one of the most popular websites and exchange programs for organic farming; World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. With WWOOF, people from all over the world are able to search an online database of organic farms looking for helpers in different times of the year. A helper shows up at a farm for food and accommodation that is only paid for with the work they give back to the farm. Essentially, the traveler only pays for their transportation to get where they are going. There many websites now that offer this exchange (helpx.net and workaway.info are among sites similar to WWOOF).
I knew I wanted to go to Spain, but knew I had to do it for cheap. I had also wanted to learn how to garden for awhile. After corresponding via helpx.net with a Scottish couple living in the Andalucía region of Spain, it worked out that they needed help for the time I would be in the country. Contact at first was hard; they only used the internet once a week or sometimes less, when they made the journey into town, and could only receive text messages if they walked a bit up a hill, and only very early in the morning from that spot. Oh, it all seemed terribly romantic and wonderful, to be so disconnected from my cell phone for a month and not see a single status update on Facebook. Plus, cats and tomatoes! It was going to be grand.
But then I was sitting there with this woman drooling on my sweatshirt on this bus with the winds of southern Spain making me feel like a tornado was soon to hit. How romantic.
Eventually, I arrived in Granada, only to take another bus to a small city by the name of Valor, Spain. After being assured that I hadn’t been lost, the buses seemed much less scary. Getting off of the bus in the small traditional town of Valor, a man with a strong Scottish accent, hair longer than my own, and the leash of a golden retriever in one hand said, “Are you Annie?” I told him yes, asked how he knew, and he replied, “Well, you don’t look like you’re from around here.”
Iain was his name, and he and his girlfriend Karen are the only people who live year-round in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They pointed out to me that the other houses visible from theirs were only lived in for a few weeks every year by hunters during hunting season. Getting to their small stone-built house was quite a bumpy adventure, an hour-long drive through impossibly winding paths of rough terrain, straight up until we hit the 1800 meter-mark. The Mediterranean Sea was visible just over the hills from their front door. When I opened the door of their small guest house at 8 a.m. each morning to let the chickens out of their coop, the sky was always burning pink, with clouds nibbling the edges of the mountains.
My work each day varied and time was seen as a leisurely thing. We lingered and woke up for about an hour with breakfast and then I began my work on the enormous potato plot, my favorite activity out of all of them; after knowing what the potatoes look like beneath the soil, they become gems when you spot the skin from above. Sometimes I tended to their homemade greenhouse (made with logs and plastic sheets), spent days peeling chestnuts, planted onions, or cleared up the last bit of cherry tomatoes and made them all into a year’s worth of tomato puree. Whatever my activity of the day was, it involved a lot of silence, an increasing number of freckles, and sometimes the low fuzzy reception of the BBC news, which they sometimes could catch on a faint signal around noon. “It’s nice to still know a bit about what’s going on in the world, even though we don’t want to be a part of civilization, really,” Karen said.
Every meal we ate came entirely from the garden, the only exceptions being things like salt, flour, and oil. I’m sure these were the healthiest weeks of my life. I’ll say it; I fucking glowed. I didn’t even have a mirror but I could feel my skin radiating some sort of new difference. The constant exercise of walking up and down a steep hill carrying heavy loads of vegetables in combination with consuming only organics yielded not only physical betterment but a better mood: something I strive to hold onto during this, the worst of all terms.
The journey began with intense fear of being lost in a foreign country (hell, my first time in Europe), but by the end my head felt like a blender of ideas. Was this the way to do things? How many college students were doing the exact same thing I was doing? Were any of them following through and keeping these new habits after their farming experience? Is this all a trend? Most importantly, how am I supposed to grow potatoes in the Illinois winter?!
It took Karen and Iain their entire lives to save up the money to buy land in a secluded place and form their own mostly-off-grid life. I lived there for under a month and then came back to the U.S.A., where I am eating tomatoes whose origins I know nothing about. For a world whose future looks somewhat uncertain in terms of the food industry, how much can we afford for WWOOFing to simply be a college trend? How much of it can we bring home and make last?